Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835


Conversation


In the preceding chapter, I have given you some general directions in respect to the formation of your manners. The subject on which I am now to address you, is closely connected with that but yet, if I mistake not, is sufficiently distinct to justify a consideration of it in a separate section.

I am well aware that the gift of conversation is originally possessed in very unequal measures; and that while some have a native aptitude for social interaction others seem to be constitutionally deficient in ease and fluency. But notwithstanding this original diversity, there is perhaps no talent that is more susceptible of improvement, than the talent for conversation. And though you should possess it in ever so moderate a degree, you may still, by a suitable degree of attention, render yourself, in this respect decent and respectable.

The first requisite for conversing well, is a well-stored and cultivated mind. Without this, I acknowledge that you may talk fluently, and talk abundantly, and if you please, talk humorously but you can never be qualified to hold your part to advantage in intelligent social interaction. If you move in the walks of cultivated society, you will find that a great variety of topics will come up, beyond the mere commonplaces of the day; and unless you have become considerably conversant with the various departments of knowledge you will be subjected to the humiliation of showing your ignorance either by saying nothing, or by saying that which is not to the purpose.

There is no subject of importance, the slightest knowledge of which may not be of advantage to you in conversation; for even though it should be too limited to enable you to impart anything to those with whom you converse it may be of great use in assisting you to prosecute your inquiries with intelligence, and thus to increase your own stock of information. I would say, then, be studious to gain knowledge on every important subject, and do not regard even the fragments of information as too unimportant to be treasured up and retained.

Endeavor, as far as possible, to make your conversation a source of improvement. The gift of speech like every other endowment, was bestowed for an important purpose; and that purpose can never be answered, unless it is made the vehicle for communicating, or the means of obtaining useful knowledge or good impressions. Wherever it is in your power to command the conversation, make it a primary object to give it such a turn that it shall serve the intellectual and moral advantage of those who are engaged in it!

It may be well for you, with reference to your own improvement to endeavor to introduce such topics as may best suit the taste or talents of those with whom you converse; topics upon which they will be most at home, and will be most likely to throw out thoughts that may be useful to you. It has often happened that an individual, from one conversation with an intelligent friend, has gained more light on a particular subject, than would have been gained by weeks, or even months, of reading or reflection.

And let me say, that there are scarcely any circumstances in which you can be placed, in which you may not render the conversation a source of some advantage, either to yourself or others. If you are thrown among the illiterate and vulgar you may, in a single half hour, do something to enlighten them; you may even be instrumental in giving a new direction to their thoughts, and ultimately of forming their character in a better mold. And notwithstanding their ignorance on most subjects, there may be some on which they may be able to instruct you; and thus, after all, you may be mutually benefitted by your fellowship.

Let me caution you to beware of talking too much! If you cannot talk to edification then the less you say the better! But even if your conversation can be uplifting; and if besides, you are gifted with the best powers of conversation it will be wise for you to guard against the imputation of excessive loquacity.

I would not, by any means, have you yield to a prudish reserve; but I know not whether even that, were a more offensive extreme than to monopolize the conversation of a whole circle.

You are to remember that as the gift of speech is common to all so there are a very few, who are not inclined to speak at all. It is a rare case indeed, that you will meet an individual who will feel satisfied to sit down and hear another talk continually, and have the conversation addressed to himself without bearing any part in it. But, at any rate, you are never to make yourself very conspicuous in conversation, without due regard to circumstances. If, for instance, you are among people who are your superiors in age or standing in society there must be strong circumstances to justify you in bearing more than a moderate share in the conversation. And if you should actually take the lead in the conversation let it appear manifest that it is not because you are predisposed to do so but because it is the wish of others that you should.

If you talk out of proportion to your relative circumstances, even though it should be to the amusement or edification of those who listen it is more than probable that it will be set down to the score of vanity. It were far better to leave a circle wishing, from what you have actually said that you had said more; than be irritated with you for having talked so much.

It is only an extension of the thought to which I have just adverted, when I remark further, that you should beware of talking without reflection, or when you have nothing to say. It is far better to be silent, than to talk in this manner, or in these circumstances. For you cannot hope to edify anyone, and you certainly expose your ignorance. Let the subject be what it may, accustom yourself always to reflect before you speak! In other words, to have thoughts before you utter them. You cannot look around in society, without perceiving that incautious speaking is one of the most fruitful sources of mischief. Whether you are discussing a serious subject, or talking about the most familiar occurrences of life let it be a rule from which you never deviate, to say nothing without reflection! You may easily form this habit, and the advantage of it will be incalculable. Or you may perhaps, with still greater ease, form the opposite habit and it will subject you to serious evils as long as you live!

Take care that you never subject yourself to the charge of egotism. This is apt to be a consequence of excessive garrulity; for there are few people who talk a great deal who do not find it convenient to magnify their own importance. And let me say that this is a foible which is more likely to escape the observation of the person who is subject to it than almost any other! And yet there is perhaps no other person, which is more easily detected by everyone else! And, I may add no other person excites more universal disgust!

Guard your lips, then, whenever you find it in your heart to make yourself the heroine of your own story! Never say anything of yourself which even indirectly involves commendation unless under circumstances of very rare occurrence. If you watch the operations of your heart, you will probably be surprised to find how strong is the propensity to bring one's self into view as often and to as great advantage as possible.

Whenever you can illustrate any subject on which you may be conversing by a reference to the experience of anyone else it is better, in all ordinary cases, to avail yourself of it, than to refer even indirectly to your own. I have known some people, who have manifested a strange kind of egotism, in speaking freely and unnecessarily of their own past errors when it appeared to me that genuine humility should have led them to silent repentance. You may rest assured, that it is an exceedingly difficult thing to allude much either to one's own faults or excellencies; difficult, I mean, without leaving an impression that it is the offspring of a foolish self-delight. In other words without getting, and deservedly getting, the reputation of an egotist!

Avoid even the appearance of ostentation of learning. If you are conversing with people of very limited attainments, you will make yourself far more acceptable as well as useful to them by accommodating yourself to their capacities, than by compelling them to listen to what they cannot understand.

I do not say that you may not in some instances, awe them with your supposed wisdom, and perhaps they may even see you as an oracle of learning; but it is much more probable that even they will smile at such a prideful exhibition, as a contemptible weakness.

With the intelligent and discerning, this effect certainly will be produced; and that whether your pretensions to learning are well founded or not. The simple fact that you aim to appear learned, that you deal much in allusions to the classics or the various departments of science, with an evident intention to display your familiarity with them will be more intolerable than even absolute ignorance! If you are really a proficient in the topic being discussed you need have no apprehension that your acquisitions will not be known without your making a formal proclamation of them. If you are only a superficial student, and make pretensions to learning which your acquirements do not justify you will inevitably have to encounter a mortifying defeat! For you may set it down as a fact, that in cultivated society you will pass for nothing more than you are really worth!

My advice to you is, to acquire as much useful information as you can, and to use it in conversation where there is manifestly occasion for it. But in no case whatever to volunteer a learned remark where there is no higher purpose to be answered, than mere personal display!

And never venture on a subject, especially with an air of confidence and learnedness, upon which you are conscious your attainments are too shallow to justify it. It is an experiment always fraught with danger; and many instances I have known in which it has resulted in a humiliating exposure both of ignorance and weakness. You are at liberty, indeed, to converse upon subjects on which you are not well informed; this, as I have elsewhere intimated, is one important means of increasing your information. But, in every such case, do not attempt to get more credit for intelligence, than you really deserve do not assume the air of a teacher, when you are conscious that the attitude of a learner belongs to you. In this respect, as well as in every other, honesty is the safest and best policy!

Let me caution you still further against a habit of light conversation. I have known young girls with whom this habit had become so confirmed, that it seemed as if they could scarcely speak, but to trifle; and who would even choose to remain silent, rather than join in conversation in which their favorite passion could not be indulged. You cannot contract such a habit, but at the expense of forfeiting the esteem of the wise and good, of sacrificing true dignity of character, and throwing yourself into a current of temptation in which there is every probability that you will be irrecoverably lost.

Scarcely any habit more effectually than this, imparts a disrelish for the society of all except triflers and hardens the heart against the influences of true religion.

I do not wish ever to see you gloomy, or austere, or dull; but as you value all that is most precious in time and eternity I beg you never to give yourself up to a habit of levity. Avoid even the most distant approach to it; for it is the nature of every habit, and especially of this to make an insidious beginning, and to grow strong by indulgence.

If you are thrown into company in which it is the fashion to trifle get out of it as soon as possible! And while you are in it, have decision enough to let it appear that you are not in your favorite element. And if you should have so much decision as to express your disapprobation, and to administer a gentle yet dignified reproof I venture to say, that the greatest trifler in the circle would respect you the more for it. There is no apology to be made for such a habit on the ground of constitution, education, or anything else. And if you yield to it, I must again remind you that you do it at the expense of character, usefulness, and happiness!

Be careful also how you indulge in sarcasm. If you are constitutionally inclined to this you will find that there is no point in your character which needs to be more faithfully guarded. There are but few cases in which severe irony may be employed to advantage cases in which vice and error will shrink before it, when they will unhesitatingly dismiss every other species of opposition.

But it too often happens, that those who possess this talent use it too indiscriminately, and perhaps even more frequently to confound modest and humble virtue than to abash bold and insolent vice. But be assured that it is a contemptible triumph that is gained, when, by the force of sarcasm, the lips of a deserving individual are sealed, and the countenance crimsoned with blushes.

And there are only a few cases cases in which the cast of character is peculiar that will warrant the use of this weapon against vice itself. You may take it for granted, in all ordinary cases in which a sarcastic remark has done its office that you have excited feelings of no very friendly character towards yourself. You may be flattered by the compliment which you imagine those around you are paying to your wit but it were more reasonable for you, to grieve at the reflection that you may have lost a friend.

In connection with sarcasm as displayed towards those with whom you converse, let me say a word in respect to your treatment of absent people. Never volunteer unnecessarily, in speaking badly of anybody. You may indeed be placed in circumstances in which it may be proper and even necessary that you should express an unfavorable opinion of people that you should state facts concerning them of the most disagreeable nature. But what I object to is, that you should do this when circumstances do not require it and when no good will be likely to result from it. For it at once indicates a bad disposition, and is a means by which that disposition will gain strength.

But in no case allow yourself to make any unfavorable representation of a person unless you have ample evidence that it is accordant with truth. By neglecting to observe this direction, you may do an injury to an innocent person, which it will afterwards never be in your power to retrieve and acquire for yourself the reputation of a slanderer!

There is an idle way of discussing people, in which less is usually meant than meets the ear and which often seems to be resorted to merely for the sake of filling up the time. Remember that if you allow yourself to join in this kind of conversation you always do it at the hazard of making enemies for yourself. For though your remarks may be made with perfectly harmless intentions, and may convey no bad impressions to the individual to whom they are addressed yet when they reach the ear of the person who is the subject of them, unaccompanied by the manner in which they were uttered, and perhaps in an exaggerated form they will almost of course be interpreted as indicating diminished friendship, if not decided hostility!

Above all, never venture censorious remarks upon people, when you are thrown among strangers. Many instances have occurred in which an individual who has ventured upon this experiment has afterwards made the mortifying discovery that the person who was the subject of his remarks was actually listening to them; or if not, that they were heard by some near relative or friend. The only prudent course in such circumstances, is to say nothing which will expose your own feelings or the feelings of others in view of any disclosure that may be made.

There is a sacrilegious and irreverent use of sacred things, against which I wish especially to guard you. For a girl to be absolutely profane, would be to render herself at once an outlaw from decent society; nevertheless I have observed with pain, that some young ladies, who would doubtless shrink from the charge of profaneness, allow themselves in exclamations, and in irreverent and ludicrous applications of Scripture, which border very closely upon it! Beware how you even approach this dangerous ground. Such exclamations as those to which I have referred, in which either the solemn name of the Divine Being, or one of his attributes is lightly introduced are fitted to destroy your reverence for everything sacred, and to nourish within you, a spirit of absolute impiety. Never allow anything of a sacred nature to be on your lips without a corresponding sentiment of reverence in your heart. And if those with whom you are accustomed to associate, indulge themselves in this sinful habit of which I have spoken then think it a sufficient reason for declining their society!

I will only detain you farther by suggesting a caution to nourish a most sacred regard to truth. There is a habit which many people have of dealing artfully and evasively; saving their consciences by some expression which may admit of double construction but which nevertheless in its obvious construction is contrary to truth. There are others who have a habit of exaggerating. With them, the simple truth is too dry to be relished. They allow their imaginations to supply the defects of their memories and never seem to breathe freely, but in the region of embellishment and exaggeration.

And I am constrained to say, that much of the civility of fashionable life savors strongly of deception. I refer here not only to the habit which some ladies have of sending word to visitors that they are not at home, when they are only busy but to the 'painful regrets' that are often expressed at the distance between calls; at the 'unspeakable joy' which is manifested on meeting a fashionable acquaintance; at the 'earnest importunity' that is exhibited for an early visit when the truth is in each case that the real feeling is that of 'absolute indifference'!

Now, I beg you will guard against duplicity in all its forms. Rely on it it is not necessary to true politeness. And if it were you ought not, as an accountable and immortal creature, even to ponder the question whether you shall yield to it.

There are cases, I know, in which the temptation to equivocate is powerful, in which to speak the honest truth must involve severe personal sacrifices; but in all cases of this kind, the only proper alternative is, either to speak out your real sentiments, or to say nothing. And you are not even at liberty to remain silent when silence will convey a wrong impression, and of course is virtual falsehood.

You will gain nothing if you indulge yourself in a habit of exaggeration; for this feature in your character, will soon be understood, and your statements will all be received with a corresponding reticence.

In a word, let it be a principle with you, never to be violated, that in whatever circumstances you are placed that all that you say shall be characterized by the simplicity of truth. In this way, you will secure the approbation of your own conscience, and commend yourself to the confidence and regard of all who know you.